Last week I was in London, where I participated in a very unique lecture sponsored by Design London. Design London is an initiative announced last year to combine the creativity and expertise in design from the Royal College of Art, engineering from Imperial College's Faculty of Engineering, and the business of innovation from Imperial College's Tanaka Business School. It was established to stir together the scientific, engineering, business and creative design communities to enhance business and public sector innovation.
The lecture - Web 3.0: Materializing the conceptual worlds of the mind - is part of Design London's STIR lecture series. The STIR - Simulator, Teach, Incubate, Research - lectures aim to address a wide range of subjects from widely different personal experiences and points of view. Many times throughout my career have I participate in joint lectures and panels, but never before have I done so with a film director – John Maybury, - and an architect and designer – Nigel Coates. That was a most gratifying and stimulating first for me.
John Maybury is a British film director with quite a number of full length features and music videos to his credit. In his talk, he showed clips from some of his films and music videos, and explained how he mixes together live actors and computer generated images (CGI) to convey the desired feelings to the audience and advance the story. Film directors now have an increasing variety of tools to reach out to the audience and bring their stories to life.
Nigel Coates is professor and head of the Department of Architecture at the Royal College of Art. He does not just architect a single space or a single building. He is interested in a holistic, eclectic approach to the design of cities, that draws both from the world of films and the world of systems. He sees the city as a total organism, in which the architecture of the buildings, roads, parks and other parts of the city, and the architecture of the lives of its inhabitants and visitors interact with and shape each other.
In his writings, Nigel argues for "a re-imagining of the city as a dynamic hybrid: a palimpsest of not just old and new, but of the real and the hypothetical." His works have been exhibited in the Venice Architecture Biennale, where they will once be shown later this year, as well as the Tate Modern and other major museums around the world.
In his talk, Nigel said that he views architecture as a framework in which events happen. Thus, to just emphasize the physical aspects of architecture would be too static a view and miss the whole point. To understand a city, requires an engagement with the urban psyche. He thus advices people to be the architects of their own lives, and in doing so to radically adapt the buildings around them.
He showed us examples of some of his hybrid, holistic cities. Ecstacity is a fictional global city pieced together from sections of Cairo, London, Mumbai, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Rome and Tokyo. It is a global, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, all embracing city, where its various parts are conjoined and intertwined. In Nigel's own words "half-real and half-imaginary, Ecstacity builds on the increasingly global outlook of existing cities . . . it partners a fluid architecture of hybrids with the information world we already inhabit . . . it invests the everyday with conflations of scale, of story, of emotion, replacing institutional power with shared grounds of identity and desire".
Mixtacity was commissioned as part of a 2007 exhibition on Global Cities at the Tate Modern museum. Mixtacity is a design for the Thames Gateway, an area of land stretching 40 miles east of London on both sides of the river Thames. In it, Nigel explores the area's potential to accommodate the complex range of cultures, ethnic ties and lifestyle choices of its future inhabitants. But he does so not with classic architectural drawings, but driven by an artistic spirit, in which is models are made of biscuits, sugar lumps, cotton, tacky souvenirs, toy guns and giant human hands, in order to better convey his vision of what the Thames Gateway should be like.
I truly felt like the odd man out - the boring technologist and businessman amidst two world renowned artists and creative spirits. But, that was the whole point of this eclectic Design London lecture. Why should engineering and business continue to feel trapped by the conventions of the past? Why shouldn't technology liberate our engineering and business designs, just like artists like John Maybury and Nigel Coates feel free to create new kinds of films and cities? This is the essential promise of virtual worlds to the world of IT applications, the subject of my talk.
I was very taken with Nigel's crisp definition of architecture as a framework in which events happen. I wrote it down as soon as he said it, because I felt that this is what IT architectures need to evolve to as well. Today, most IT architectures are totally based on the capabilities of their underlying technologies. They are designed and built "bottoms up", and in that sense, generally incomprehensible to the people trying to use them.
Most IT applications feel like dysfunctional films and cities, where it is not clear at all what is happening and what is possible, and where bizarre error messages keep popping up asking us questions whose meaning we could not possibly fathom. The reason is probably the lack of a narrative or coherent whole. There is essentially no designer, in the sense of someone that tries to put himself in the mind of the user of the applications, and attempts to make the applications as simple, intuitive, and human as possible.
But, because of the tremendous power of information technologies, we are now in the position to begin to change this old-fashioned approach to business and engineering. The design of applications should start by asking ourselves how we envision such applications in our minds, and even more important, how the intended users of the applications should envision them, so that their experience is as satisfying as possible.
This is a gigantic cultural shift for engineers and business executives, perhaps more radical than anything John Maybury and Nigel Coates have created in their long and successful careers. It says that to design a healthcare system, a financial institution or a retail establishment, we now need to start by conceptualizing not just the capabilities of the hospital, bank or store, but also the experience that we want their clients, employees and everyone else to have when dealing with them.
It also represents a major shift in IT, from a focus on the computer, to a focus on the human experience. Information technologies can now simulate just about anything, so they may as well present themselves to their users in the way that best matches their concept of the problem at hand, and of the application that is intended to help them resolve it.
This is truly revolutionary. I cannot think of a more empowering and liberating view of the potential of technology in the decades ahead.